The oft-maligned grape variety Pinotage, is slowly regaining the recognition it deserves. Much of that change in perspective is down to the work of Kanonkop and its winemaker Abrie Beeslaar who visited London last month to present 13 vintages of its outstanding Kanonkop Black Label Pinotage from the years 2006 through to the current vintage of 2019. Chef and wine expert Roger Jones caught up with Beeslaar, the Krige brothers and tasted through the wines.
“A big, complex and powerful wine, the proverbial iron fist in a velvet glove!” Abrie Beeslaar said about the Kanonkop Black Label Pinotage 2018.
“Don’t crucify the grape – crucify the winemaker,” this is Johann Krige’s war cry as he educates the packed basement of 67 Pall Mall on the virtues of Pinotage. London was trodden by numerous South African winemakers in May, each with a tale to tell, no more so that than Kanonkop’s Johann Krige, grandson of the founder, Paul Sauer.
So important was this message that he not only brought with him Abrie Beeslaar the winemaker, but his younger brother Paul, plus wives and anyone else who could help bring in the sample bottles (the main shipment was held up in customs) in their suitcases.
Beeslaar (three times winner of the IWSC Winemaker of the Year award) explains that Pinotage has many hazards along its journey, and it is imperative to know these and to eliminate them by correct guidance and control, a grape that is often dismissed but, in the right hands and with age, delivers perfectly.
“Nature works in mysterious ways in the vineyard,” Beeslaar explains, and it is the winemaker’s role to capture the expression of soil, climate and aspect, steering the grapes through vinification, maturation and bottling.
Beeslaar joined Kanonkop in 2002, with his first solo vintage in 2003, having taken over the reins from ‘Mr Pinotage’ Beyers Truter and released the first vintage of Kanonkop Black Label Pinotage in 2006 and, importantly together with the Krige family, decided to sell this unique Pinotage en primeur. The Black Label Pinotage wines are sourced from a single vineyard planted in 1953 (although the first Pinotage plantings in Kanonkop were in 1943) away from its siblings; it is also important to get it out of your head that Pinotage is a ‘natural blend of Cinsault and Pinot Noir’… nature is not that simple. Beeslaar said that the wine develops from the soil upwards not from the boardroom downwards, he was keen from the outset to highlight the qualities of aged Pinotage.
Beeslaar, like Krige, highlighted that the issues often levelled at Pinotage were down to poor winemaking and management, lack of care and the failure to control the bitterness, bacterial issues and the grape’s naturally high pH. Beeslaar sees Pinotage evolving with age, at five years it can be awkward showing signs of oxidisation but then develops a perfume character that uplifts and ‘cleans’ the wine. He is searching for mouth-filling tannins, and introduced optical sorting in 2016, and in 2019 introduced new Burgundian oak (Tremeaux) barrels. He noted too that he does not do whole bunch – just berries with no stems.
Quantity wise about 7,000 bottles of the Black Label Pinotage are produced each year compared to 90,000 of the Kanonkop Estate Pinotage and 240,000 of the Kanonkop Kadette Pinotage.
Prior to the vertical of Black Label Pinotage we tried two vintages of Estate Pinotage.
Kanonkop Estate Pinotage 2012
Cherry and vanilla savoury nose, a touch of cedar and tobacco, silky perfumed, hints of chocolate, first hit on the mouth is dry cedar tannin which gives it a lovely tobacco leaf feel, then there are dark fruits at the back of the palate coating it seamlessly to leave a pristine finish – dark cherries brighten the finish with fresh acidity, a bacon braai savoury note – integrated secondary flavours coming through, complex and exciting. 14.5%
Kanonkop Estate Pinotage 2019
Dark, brooding wine with rich plummy fruit, tobacco, and bright red berries, juicy fresh acidity – needs time, very bright and ripe, some chocolate spice on the finish along with firm youthful tannins, blueberries and new oak still at the fore. 14.95%
We then tasted a vertical of Kanonkop Black Label Pinotage 2006-19
Kanonkop Black Label Pinotage 2006
Delicate, truffled forest floor, big blackberries and full flavoured, delicate refined tannins, cedar wood and spice, dark strawberries, dry on the finish, fresh acidity which evolves on the palate – bacon, baby back ribs. Love it. 14.5%
Kanonkop Black Label Pinotage 2007
Chewy, bacon fat with saline, cedar spiced, rhubarb, dark plums; this still has that spiced tannin feel with delicate, refined cedar spice, chocolate button nuances. Bright and focused, coffee chocolate underlined by the fruit. 14%
Kanonkop Black Label Pinotage 2008
Juicy, fruit-forward, Pinot Noir fruit essence, elegant, perfumed silky and juicy, violets, focused. 14%
Kanonkop Black Label Pinotage 2010
Bright, fruit-focused with hints of Pinot Noir freshness, juicy fruit but underlined with a savoury, earthy feel, savoury tannins, dark chewy black fruit on the middle palate with a clean, fresh, focused finish. Beautifully delicate, clean, ripe Pinot Noir style fruit. 14.5%
Kanonkop Black Label Pinotage 2011
Fresh and ripe fruits, juicy fresh tobacco, cedar, full-bodied rock and roll freshness from the fruit is incredible, Pinot style, cocoa, spices, cedar, truffles, cep powder, layers of complexity and excitement. Perfumed and clean, vanilla spice, red berry and sauce anglaise. 14.5%
Kanonkop Black Label Pinotage 2012
Chocolate, black fruits, black cherries, plums, velvety, cedar. Cherry and damsons on the nose, precision on the palate but then on the mid-palate there is a racy acidity uplifting it but still with some savoury tannin; clean and polished, bacon and meaty, lambs blood, violets and some rose buds. 14%
Kanonkop Black Label Pinotage 2013
Perfumed, delicate, refined flavours, red berries with some spice, this is focused, mineral, linear, with hidden depth, needs time, but evolving beautifully. Clean, focused and refreshing. 14.5%
Kanonkop Black Label Pinotage 2014
Intense, dark, brooding, perfumed, magical, peppery, spiced, juicy gammon, sweet-oaked bacon, lovely purity of fruit. 14.5%
Kanonkop Black Label Pinotage 2015
Bright perfume, red fruits. Savoury with refined bitterness, cedar wood, violets, blueberries, refreshing, moreish, beautiful antique feel on the mid-palate then bilberries and damsons, spices and herbaceous – the finish is slick and clean, focused, pure and linear, purple-fruited. 14.6%
Kanonkop Black Label Pinotage 2016
Cherry, cherryade with creamy overtones, bright clean and luscious, great balance – the purity is immense! Long, lingering focused with lovely bright-berried fruit. 14.5%
Kanonkop Black Label Pinotage 2017
Strawberries, ripe, floral, red roses, chocolate, spice, powerful and elegant. Coffee/cocoa/espresso, spiced, gripping, then dark fruits on the palate with incredible spice and length. Complex, layered, rose buds, spices, the purity is superb, fruit-forward with dark strawberries and Scottish loganberries, savoury nuances on the back palate… beautiful. 14.51%
Kanonkop Black Label Pinotage 2018
Deep purple colour, with intense, perfumed, top notes of rose petals, cinnamon, black cherries and dark chocolate. A decadently rich and layered wine, with bold flavours of black cherries, dark plums and wild bramble fruit. The seamlessly integrated oak and velvety tannins add firm support and structure to the sultry fruit core. A big, complex and powerful wine, Beeslaar said “the proverbial iron fist in a velvet glove!” Blackberry blackcurrant violets, chocolate mint crisp, rose petals, cinnamon, plummy, cedar, big and buoyant (but also silky and controlled) the purity is superb. So juicy, forward and exciting. 14.61%
Kanonkop Black Label Pinotage 2019
Bright, jammy, cordial nose, polished, tea infusion on the front palate with juicy red berries evolving, savoury background not quite in line, this needs time but there is lovely freshness there from the precise, dry damsons. Ripe, pure, focused and linear. 14.6%